Colts need to return to prominence in lackluster AFC South

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Ben Jones #60 of the Tennessee Titans lines up across from Kendall Langford #90 of the Indianapolis Colts during the second half at Nissan Stadium on October 23, 2016 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – It remains the Indianapolis Colts’ primary objective, the first step on getting where they’ve been and where they desperately want to return.

That would be winning the AFC South. Yes, it’s undeniably been the NFL’s softest touch and easiest path to the postseason. But rule your neighborhood and at worst your reward is a first-round home playoff game.

Chuck Pagano took time during last week’s owners meetings to defend his division.

“We take shots all the time, as you know, on how weak the division is,’’ he told reporters. “Ask any of the coaches, or any of the players on any of the teams, and they would obviously tell you differently.’’

In 2016, Pagano pointed out, Houston won the AFC South with a 9-7 record on the strength of holding the tiebreak over the Tennessee Titans. The Colts followed at 8-8 and failed to reach the playoffs in consecutive seasons for the first time since 1997-98. Jacksonville? A ninth consecutive non-winning record, this time at 3-13.

“It’s very, very competitive,’’ Pagano said. “I think the talent level on all the teams is getting better every single year. I don’t know why (the criticism) is out there because if you look at the talent and what’s on the rosters, it’s pretty easy to see.

“I think anytime anybody talks negatively about your team or your division, you have something to prove.’’

Pagano’s protest aside, the lampooning of the AFC South is hardly an unsubstantiated smear campaign.

Since Andrew Luck’s arrival in Indy in 2012, the AFC South has by far the worst combined record (134-186, .335). Next in line are the NFC South (156-163-1) and NFC East (156-164). The best divisional record: the NFC West (171-145-4).

Eight teams have failed to reach the playoffs over the past five seasons, a group that includes the Titans and Jaguars.

And it’s worth pointing out that until a recent lull, the Colts have feasted inside the division. They’ve posted a 49-31 regular-season record over the past five seasons by going 23-7 against the AFC South and 26-24 against the rest of the NFL.

The history lesson aside, it’s time to look ahead. With the early frenzy of veteran free agency and player movement over and the April 27-29 draft looming, here’s a look at how the AFC South shapes up:

COLTS

Re-signed: TE Jack Doyle (3 years, $18.9 million), S Darius Butler (1 year, $3 million), RB Robert Turbin (2 years, $3.2 million).

Additions: LB Jabaal Sheard, LB John Simon, LB Sean Spence, LB Barkevious Mingo, P Jeff Locke, NT Al Woods, WR Kamar Aiken, OL Brian Schwenke, DE Margus Hunt, TE Brandon Williams.

Subtractions: LB Robert Mathis (retired), OT Joe Reitz (retired), P Pat McAfee (retired), TE Dwayne Allen (traded to New England), S Mike Adams, LB Trent Cole, LB Erik Walden, OL Jon Harrison, RB/KR Jordan Todman, DT Zach Kerr.

Draft picks: 7, including 15th overall.

Comment: The offseason activity has focused on totally retooling a defense that a year ago ranked 30th in yards per game and 22nd in points allowed. That needs to continue in the April 27-29 draft. Priority 1 needs to be an impactful pass rusher.

HOUSTON

Additions: None.

Subtractions: QB Brock Osweiler (traded to Cleveland), CB A.J. Bouye, LB John Simon, S Quintin Demps.

Draft picks: 7, including 25th overall.

Comment: The one-and-done by Osweiler in Houston seems to be universally applauded. But until another QB is added, the Texans offense is in the hands of either Tom Savage or Brandon Weeden. They are a combined 7-20 in a starter’s role.

TENNESSEE

Additions: CB Logan Ryan, S Johnathan Cyprien, NT Sylvester Williams.

Subtractions: TE Anthony Fasano, LB Sean Spence, G Chance Warmack, NT Al Woods, WR Kendall Wright, QB Matt Cassell, G Brian Schwenke.

Draft picks: 8, including 5th and 18th overall.

Comment: General manager Jon Robinson continues to build a solid roster. The Titans’ growth mirrors that of QB Marcus Mariota. His 2016 season ended Dec. 24 when he broke his right fibula against Jacksonville, but he’s expected to be ready for the start of training camp.

JACKSONVILLE

Additions: CB A.J. Bouye (5 years, $67.5 million), DE Calais Campbell (5 years, $60 million), S Barry Church (4 years, $26 million), G Earl Watford, OT Branden Albert (trade from Miami).

Subtractions: DE Tyson Alualu, CB Prince Amukamara, OT Kelvin Beachum, S Johnathan Cyprien, CB Davon House, DE Jared Odrick.

Draft picks: 7, including 4th overall.

Comment: No one should question owner Shad Khan’s willingness to do whatever it takes to return the Jaguars to respectability. After spending heavily during the 2016 offseason, he’s followed a similar script. Mega-deals with Bouye, Campbell and Church included $68 million in guarantees. It seems as if Jacksonville is trying to build a roster strong enough to overcome the presence of QB Blake Bortles. Here’s where we remind you the Jaguars haven’t had a winning season since 2007 and Bortles is 11-34 as a starter.

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